Judge says NY AG can't dissolve NRA

AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File

A New York Supreme Court judge has slammed the door on Attorney General Letitia James’ bid to dissolve the National Rifle Association over allegations of “greed, self-dealing, and lax reporting oversight”, issuing a ruling on Wednesday that the rank-and-file members shouldn’t be punished for the purported misdeeds of NRA leaders.

Judge Joel Cohen left alive 14 of the 18 complaints originally filed by James’ office, and his ruling made it clear that the portion of the lawsuit targeting current and former NRA executives can proceed, but declared that dissolving the NRA wouldn’t benefit members, who were the victims of the alleged impropriety on the part of NRA higher-ups.

The Complaint does not allege that any financial misconduct benefited the NRA, or that the NRA exists primarily to carry out such activity, or that the NRA is incapable of continuing its  legitimate activities on behalf of its millions of members. In short, the Complaint does not allege  the type of public harm that is the legal linchpin for imposing the “corporate death penalty.” 

Moreover, dissolving the NRA could impinge, at least indirectly, on the free speech and assembly rights of its millions of members. While that alone would not preclude dissolution if circumstances otherwise clearly warranted it, the Court believes it is a relevant statutory factor that counsels against State-imposed dissolution, which should be the last option, not the first.

James, who labeled the NRA a terrorist organization during her 2018 campaign to become New York’s A.G. and has been accused of targeting the group for political purposes, says that her office is considering its legal options, adding ““While we’re heartened that the judge rejected the NRA’s attempts to thwart most of the claims in our case against the NRA, we are disappointed that the judge ruled against the dissolution portion of the case.”

She should be thanking the judge, honestly, because trying to shut down the 150-year old organization under the guise of protecting its members was a blatant political power grab on her part. If NRA leadership was abusing the trust and donations of members, why punish those members themselves by destroying the organization itself? From a public watchdog perspective, it never made sense. From the point of view of an anti-gun attack dog, however, the appeal of dissolving the nation’s largest Second Amendment group is undeniable.

NRA president Charles Cotton called the judge’s decision a “resounding win for the NRA, its 5 million members, and all who believe in this organization,” in a statement released by the group, and it’s hard to disagree.

On the other hand, Judge Cohen’s ruling also reminds us of many of the allegations levied against NRA leadership, and Cohen made it clear that James can continue to pursue sanctions and legal remedies against NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, secretary and general counsel John Frazer, former NRA treasurer Woody Phillips, and former director of general operations Joshua Powell for the multiple instances of alleged financial misconduct.

The NYAG alleges that LaPierre routinely abused his authority as Executive Vice President of the NRA to cause the NRA to improperly incur and reimburse LaPierre for expenses that were for LaPierre’s personal benefit and violated NRA policy, including private jet travel for purely personal reasons; trips to the Bahamas to vacation on a yacht owned by the principal of numerous NRA vendors; use of a travel consultant for costly black car services; gifts for favored friends and vendors; lucrative consulting contracts for ex-employees and board members; and excessive security costs. 

LaPierre testified that it is NRA policy that he travel by private aircraft at all times, for security reasons. He testified further that he is not aware of any limits under this policy on the kind of plane he can charter, how far he can go, or the amount of  money he can spend on the flights. LaPierre admitted under oath that he has no knowledge of a written policy permitting charter travel, and the NRA has never produced one. NRA records show that between June 2016 and February 2018, the organization paid for numerous private flights for LaPierre’s wife and extended family, even when LaPierre himself was not a passenger. LaPierre admitted that he authorized at least some of these flights, and the NYAG alleges that none of them were approved for security reasons, nor were they approved by the NRA Board.  

For example, in July 2017, LaPierre authorized a private flight for his niece and her daughter to fly from Dallas, TX, to Orlando, FL. LaPierre testified that this “was  another example where I was getting [my niece] together with my wife to work on the Women’s Leadership Forum events. She had tried to travel commercial. All the commercial flights they had – there was a mechanical problem. She was stuck there at the airport until 12:30 or 1:00 at night with a child trying to fly commercial”. The cost of the flight was more than $26,995.

While I wholeheartedly believe that Letitia James’ investigation into the NRA was motivated by anti-gun animosity and the political benefit she was hoping to derive from taking on the nation’s biggest gun rights group, it’s also apparent that there’ve been some serious issues that have come to light over the past few years, with the NRA even acknowledging that it has paid “excessive benefits” to LaPierre and other top executives in recent years. 

None of that is cause for dissolution, and Judge Cohen made the right call in taking that option off the table, but Wednesday’s ruling doesn’t mean that the organization or its leadership can now rest easy. James will most likely continue her case against LaPierre and the other current and former officials, and even if she can’t officially dissolve the organization she can still try to bleed it dry through fines and legal fees.